Rory Cochrane and Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused
In Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater does -- albeit on a smaller scale -- something like what Francis Ford Coppola did for the gangster film in The Godfather (1972) or Sam Peckinpah did for the Western in The Wild Bunch (1969): They took a familiar movie genre, in Linklater's case the teen comedy, and perfected it. Linklater doesn't parody it the way Tina Fey did in Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) or sentimentalize it the way George Lucas did in American Graffiti (1973), though the latter film, with its oldies soundtrack, comes closer to what Linklater accomplishes. But Linklater explicitly rejected the nostalgia of American Graffiti. His attitude is summed up by the character Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), the quarterback who resists signing a no alcohol, no drugs pledge so he can stay on the team: "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." Linklater has said that he wanted to avoid the melodramatic excesses of teen films -- the car crashes and pregnancies -- and to reflect the reality of just "riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up." Roger Ebert and others have called Linklater an anthropologist. It's easy to see this in his best work, such as the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood (2014) and the Céline-and-Jesse trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), in which Linklater takes the time to get to know his characters and the way their experiences have shaped them at specific moments in their lives. But in Dazed and Confused we are offered only a few hours with a host of characters, on the last day of school in 1976 -- the summer that Linklater turned 16 -- and into the evening that follows. There is beer and pot and vandalism -- which gets the vandals shot at -- and some rather frustrated sexuality, but it never turns into anything worse than the seniors hazing the freshmen by paddling them, and the most sadistic of the seniors getting a bucket of paint dumped on his head in retribution. There is no plot as such, but who needs plot when you have a cast of formidable but then-unknown young actors, including two future Oscar winners, to create the characters? Ben Affleck evokes the sadism of O'Bannion, whose obsession with paddling freshmen begins to frighten even his fellow hazers. Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson, the twentysomething slacker who still hangs out with high school kids, is the very embodiment of the Peter Pan complex. He insists "You just gotta keep livin', man," but reveals the unacknowledged sadness within by saying, "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." Linklater's genius is demonstrated in his ability to tell so much about so many in his huge cast of characters, from the completely baked Slater (Rory Cochrane) to the class nerds (Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp, and Adam Goldberg), in such a short time.